*** Remember all the politicians using the soldiers as a way to bat away criticism of the mission? Ask how many of them have visited the wounded, have set up funds and compensation, have cared for them beyond the sound bites they fill our heads with. This is a national disgrace. That's the one thing people of honour know: don't look for any recognition, any validation - KNOW that the honour is within YOU (soldiers) not anyone else. MS ***
VANCOUVER - Master Cpl. Jody Mitic was a sniper on patrol with his unit in Kandahar province in January 2007 when he stepped on a land mine and lost both legs below the knee.
In the split second it took for the charge to explode, Mitic's life changed instantly, irrevocably.
"I've been a soldier since I was 17 and I'd hoped to be a soldier until the day I died," the young father, nary a hint of self-pity in his voice, said in a recent interview. "In my heart I will be, but I'm just going to have to choose a new career path now."
Mitic is one of the more than 500 Canadian soldiers who have been wounded in action in Afghanistan; even more suffer from "invisible wounds" that range from mild depression to debilitating post-traumatic stress syndrome, experts say.
As Canada enters the final year of its combat mission in Afghanistan, already more than 27,000 Canadian troops have been deployed to the central Asian country that has put words like Taliban and "improvised explosive device" on the tip of every tongue.
Parliament's mandate for the combat mission in Kandahar expires in 12 months, but the fallout from the conflict will continue for years to come.
The Canadian Forces said in February that 529 soldiers had been injured in action from 2002 to the end of last year, and another 913 had suffered "non-combat" injuries.
As of October 2008, 147 veterans had been deemed "totally and permanently incapacitated," according to a report released last October by an advisory group that oversees the so-called New Veterans Charter, which took effect in 2006.
It's a grim number that serves as a stark reminder of the cost of war — a cost some veterans say the charter requires them to bear virtually alone.
Under the charter, soldiers are eligible for a maximum $250,000 lump-sum payment for pain and suffering if they are injured in the line of duty, in addition to an earnings loss benefit that provides 75 per cent of their salary until they've completed rehab.
Veterans Affairs says 9,138 soldiers have received the disability award since the new charter came into effect. Under the old rules, disabled veterans received a monthly disability pension.
Proponents say the aim of the change is occupational rehabilitation of ex-service members and help in getting them integrated back into society.
Critics say it's a betrayal of the men and women who risked their lives on the battlefields of Afghanistan. Mitic is more concise: he considers it "complete bullshit."
"I'm considered 100 per cent disabled because I'm missing both feet. I have friends who are missing both legs half way up their thighs and parts of their arms and their backs are wrecked, and for them to say we're supposed to go out and earn a living on our own?" he asks, incredulous.
It's not what he expected.
"If I ever got smashed on the job, I thought I'd be taken care of. It's a deal between you and the government and I happily took that deal because I like excitement and I loved soldiering," he says.
"We didn't really pay attention to this charter. Maybe we should have paid better attention but, you know, we were busy. And then I find out I don't get a pension when I lost my feet? Wait a minute. That wasn't the deal."
The Canadian Forces declined requests for an interview, but Senator Colin Kenny agrees with Mitic: No, that wasn't the deal.
"What do you figure your legs are worth? Would you be willing to give them up for a quarter of a million dollars?" asks Kenny, a long-serving member of the Senate defence committee.
Veterans Affairs released survey results earlier this month that said 69 per cent of respondents liked the new charter — a survey welcomed by Defence Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn and completely rejected by Mitic and Veterans Ombudsman Pat Stogran.
The retired colonel said he's heard desperate stories from veterans "who feel cheated by the country they served."
"Nobody's under any assumption when they join the military that they're not going to become a casualty of war. What they want is some peace of mind," Stogran said. "The expectations are that the needs of you and your family will be looked after to some degree."
It's a systemic problem that has existed for decades under successive governments, said Stogran, who was in Afghanistan with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in 2002.
It's worse for reservists, who make up 20 per cent of the Canadian contingent in Afghanistan. They're eligible for just 40 per cent of the compensation awarded regular force members.
An April 2008 special report to Defence Minister Peter MacKay recommended immediate changes. So far, that hasn't happened.
Within the forces itself, efforts are under way to deal with the aftermath of the war.
Retired general-turned-senator Romeo Dallaire told a Senate hearing last month that funding for injured soldiers now accounts for 62 per cent of the Department of National Defence budget.
Since 2007, wounded personnel have been able to remain in service indefinitely. The forces has built Integrated Personnel Support Centres and two per cent of base housing is being made barrier-free.
But Mitic, who now works at National Defence headquarters in Ottawa, says physical limitations make him ineligible for promotion.
Before he was injured, Mitic planned to try out for the Special Forces. Although his recovery has been nothing short of inspirational — he runs half-marathons, plays sledge hockey, rides a motorcycle — the fact is he can no longer be a front-line soldier. Now he's simply trying to figure out where he fits in the world.
"It's hard to put on a resume (that) I'm a master sniper experienced in long-range shooting and calling in fast air and artillery. That's not a prerequisite for a lot of jobs on the civilian market," he says ruefully.
In addition to the physical wounds are the "invisible wounds" — the psychological injuries of what has been a guerilla war waged with suicide bombers and IEDs.
Half of the soldiers taking part in rehabilitation are suffering from what the forces calls "operational stress injury," according to an October report, and of those, 35 per cent are considered to have full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder.
Canadian Forces Ombudsman Pierre Daigle said that of the 27,000 troops deployed, about 17 per cent are expected to show symptoms of mental health problems.
"This is not going to go away," said Daigle, a 36-year military veteran who commanded forces in Haiti and the former Yugoslavia.
A report by the veterans charter advisory group cites the case of a soldier who was deployed to the former Yugoslavia and returned with an "operational stress injury." For the soldier, it meant nightmares, anger and a drinking problem.
He was discharged with nothing but severance pay and he, his wife and their three children ended up living in a tent in his in-laws' yard. It took several years for him to get a medical assessment and treatment.
"If Canadian citizens knew what the effects of exposure to war are on these men and women, they would be insistent on programs and treatment," said Dr. Marvin Westwood, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.
Westwood and Dr. David Kuhl run the Veterans Transition Program in B.C., with funding from the Royal Canadian Legion and some help from the University of British Columbia.
The program, founded with a former service member, is an intensive soldiers-helping-soldiers program that they've facilitated for 13 years, helping hundreds of former military members to "drop their baggage" and move back into family and civilian life. It's something they say is missing from the military.
Kuhl said things have improved, "but we're not well-prepared" for the post-Afghanistan reality.
"The wounds of the earlier wars were visited on the children, generation after generation. We know that. What do we do to prevent the wounds of this war from affecting negatively the next generation?"